Paul and Apocalyptic

In Thinking Through Paul, Bruce Longenecker and Todd Still examine J. C. Beker’s suggestion that Paul’s thinking is “the apocalyptic interpretation of the Christ event” (TTP 302). It has become fashionable to describe Paul’s theology as “apocalyptic” even if the term is misunderstood. Douglas Campbell, for example, subtitles his book on Paul theology “An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul.”

The RoadBefore taking up the possibility Paul is an apocalyptic thinker, two observations need to be made. First, “apocalyptic literature” is different than “apocalyptic thinker.” The two clearest examples of apocalyptic literature in the Bible are Daniel 7-12 and Revelation, and with the exception of 2 Thessalonians 2, I cannot think of two books more different than Paul’s letters. For the most part Paul is not writing in an apocalyptic genre, even if his idea “breathes the air of Jewish apocalypticism” (TTP, 303).

Second, not all apocalyptic thinking refers to the “end of the world as we know it” (and I feel fine). Apocalyptic as a modern genre usually describes the end of the present world. Books and films like The Road or The Book of Eli are “end of the world” stories which often leave little hope of salvation. The Left Behind series is a modern Christian apocalypse with a more positive message (God will bail us out in the end and establish his kingdom). Again, with the possible exception of 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul is not creating that sort of an apocalypse.

At its very heart, apocalyptic is about God breaking into history and acting in a very real way to defend his people. He will judge those who are persecuting his people and reward those who are faithful to the end. Revelation 19-20 describes Jesus as returning in glory far beyond that of the Roman world, destroying the power of Rome and replacing Rome’s rule with a Kingdom that will never end. Revelation is not far from many other Jewish apocalypses produced in the Second Temple period since the hope God would break into history and vindicate his people was very strong in the first century.

Paul is therefore thinking about Jesus through the lens of a Second Temple Jewish person who has encountered Jesus as resurrected from the dead. Like any Pharisee, Paul would have expected a general resurrection before God established his kingdom. But what Paul did not anticipate was God raising one man from the dead as a “firstfruits” of that future resurrection.

In fact, the origin of Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles is a revelation from Jesus (Gal 1:12). The word “revelation” appears in Paul’s letters thirteen times, and as might be expected, the word has the connotation of God’s decisive actions in history to bring salvation into the world. Paul does not say he developed his Law-free gospel through careful reading of the Hebrew Bible nor does he claim to have discovered some new way of reading the Old Testament to prove Gentiles should not keep the Law. Paul’s audacious claim is Jesus revealed this teaching to him through some sort of apocalyptic vision.

There is more in Paul which can be fairly described as apocalyptic, but is it helpful to describe these apocalyptic elements in this way? Is Paul really viewing the death and resurrection in terms of the apocalyptic worldview of the Second Temple Period? How does reading Paul in this well help us understand his overall theology?

17 thoughts on “Paul and Apocalyptic

  1. I believe that Paul has more of the apocalyptic mindset, rather than apocalyptic ideology in his writing. Paul, having seen the risen Christ, and knowing that the only way to heaven is by believing in the resurrection of Christ, has only to believe that the end will come. He doesn’t know when, but knows that he must be prepared for that time and wants his readers to know that as well. He talks with urgency in his letters because eternity is a big deal to miss out on. Everybody knows that fear is a big motivator as well, maybe Paul was playing on that with using some apocalyptic writing throughout his teachings.

  2. Thinking of the term “apocalyptic” in relation of the Second Temple Period in Judaism is certainly helpful in understanding Paul, his writings, and his theology. If we view the word “apocalyptic” as referring to God breaking into history and acting to defend His people, versus reading it as “a transformation that is all-encompassing” (TTP 303), Paul’s view of the death and resurrection of Jesus definitely fits into the claim that Paul is an apocalyptic writer. Reading Paul in this way helps us to understand his overall theology in that it provides us with a better view on God, how He works, and how we are to operate based on that. If Christ’s death and resurrection can be viewed as God breaking into history and defending His people, we are able to see God as a personal, loving protector that comes to our rescue. This puts our religion in context as more than anything a relationship, not a set of rules or traditions. Even though the passage Philippians 2:9-11 suggests a stark contrast between Jesus and humans, through this apocalyptic view we can still see Him as relational, not simply a highly esteemed leader we must revere, but have no personal relationship with.

  3. The apocalyptic lens through which Paul views the world helps us understand scripture especially in understanding why Paul was so urgent in his commands to the churches. Titus 2:13 covers the idea that the church should be waiting for the blessed hope which is the return of Jesus. For Paul the reason that he was telling them to do the things that he was telling them was that Christ already broke into history and by his grace was enabling them to behave in a way that glorifies God. They were to behave this way waiting for Jesus to return. In the text it says that “Paul presents himself, in a sense, as a case study in a much larger narrative of God’s reclamation of the cosmos from the grip of competing forces” (TTP 303). With this idea of defining apocalyptic we can see why Paul is so adamant about their being two forces and that Christians are to act in a certain way. If God is stepping in and reclaiming His creation, then showing that one is part of the way of God is by acting in a way that glorifies God and not being part of the force that is against God.

  4. It all depends on what you mean by apocalyptic. In Galatians 1:16, the “apocalypse” is used to mean a “transformation that is all encompassing” (TTP 303) . A transformation is something so changing meaning becoming a “new creation” and being set free from this evil age (Gal 6:15,1:4).

    Based on these standards, Paul is an apocalyptic writer.

  5. With this view of apocalyptic meaning, Paul would have to be considered an apocalyptic writer. Paul writes about Christ being supreme and holding creation together (Col. 1.15-16). Paul writes about the power of the crucifixion and that he is convinced neither death nor life can separate from God (Ro. 8.38-39). Paul gives so much power and credit to Christ, which is rightly due, but it is due to his supremacy that Paul must believe God will step into the picture and save it. It may not be directly written, but the theology and thoughts are there.

  6. Longenecker and Still define Paul’s writings as an apocalyptic narrative that “provides the fertile soil that fed most of Paul’s most profound theological articulations” (303). The authors state that there is no better term to define and “carry the weight” of Paul’s theology (303). The authors describe how apocalyptic can also be used to “connote transformation” in Galatians 1:16-6:15 where Paul describes the transformation where Christ lives in him and is transformed into a “new creation” (6:15) (303).

  7. I think that a lot of this apocalyptic thinking and the urgency of Paul to make the commands to the churches is because he is very focused on this coming age of the Kingdom of Christ. To Paul and the people of the 1st century, the Day of the Lord was something that they thought they were going to experience within their lifetime. In Foundations of Dispensational Theology, MacGillicuddy and Jeremy Clark did a great job of talking us through the first century view of jesus coming back. For all of the signs and things that they were expecting before the time of the Messiah could be linked with events and happenings of the current time period but a lot of the relationships between what had been foretold and the actual events were simply a precursor for what is still to come to this day. I think that the word apocalypse when used by Paul is directing the church’s attention to this coming time when God would step in and intervene on their behalf and bring His Kingdom down to Earth.

  8. Paul did believe that Christ was coming pretty soon and that some of those people would be able to testimony that (1 Thess 4:17). But I think his words besides expressing his apocalyptic views, were equally to encourage those inside the church. He closes on verse 18 with – “Therefore encourage one another with these words”. He was clearly saying that their goal should be to be in heaven. Yes, I do believe he was also teaching about the end of the days, but I think he used his apocalipse views as a way to encourage the church to keep moving forward/pressing towards the goal, which was to be saved. To that, I do agree that Paul was an apocalyptic writer and thinker.

  9. I would definitely agree with those who think that Paul has an apocalyptic mindset. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul talks about the resurrection of Christ. It is understood that the believers were turning back to their pagan ways. Perhaps they were questioning life after death. Paul says that “ Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead ?” Paul is really outraged that the people are denying the resurrection because it’s a necessary part of salvation and going to heaven. Paul makes it his mission to he’ll the people the truth and lead them back to the right way, so they can have an eternity life .

  10. I think that describing Paul’s works as “apocalyptic” when you are defining that as “God breaking into history and defending his people in a very real way,” then yes, it is very helpful. It seems that this is all Paul wanted the people to get! God changed the course of the world when He sent Jesus into it. He broke into history and provided a way for people to be saved without the works of the Law. One strong example from among countless others can be found in Galatians 3. Really the whole chapter talks about how God has saved the Gentiles apart from the Law through Christ. v. 10 says this: “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse” v. 13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…” Paul is trying to tell his readers that God broke into history to save everybody.

  11. In all of Paul’s writings his apocalyptic mindset comes through. He relates how God broke in and changed the course of human history. I cannot help but relate this to my research paper on adoption in Ephesians 1:5. Paul talks about how God redeems his church through the act of adoption, which is a conscious breaking into of human events by God. But if we were to view Paul’s writings through the apocalyptic style, especially in the Jewish vein, then this description does not fit really into Paul, except for that one example you cited above in Thessalonians.

  12. If Paul really was referring to apocalyptic events and signs in the same sense as the Jews during the Second Temple Period, rather than our view of apocalyptic than I think it does somewhat change how one read’s Paul’s letters. I think there is some sense to him really wanting to stress how Jesus’ death and resurrection meant so much more than what the people, and he himself, had originally taken it to mean. I think Paul also took it to mean that the end would be nearer considering the recency of Jesus’ resurrection to the time Paul lived. I think though, that the bigger part about it he was trying to stress was that Jesus’ resurrection from death to life was going to be the first of many. He stresses one of his most sincere and important apocalyptic points in 1 Cor. 15:22-26, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” These verses can be taken at face value, or delved further into as they’re studied, but I think they are what Paul really wanted to get across everyone.

  13. I think that Paul was writing these letters with eternity in mind, as well as the end times. There are many examples of this in Paul’s letters, in which he is reminding the people of what their future in heaven is, and to be strong enough to reach that goal. Not that salvation is to be earned, but that there are future events, such as the apocalypse, that must take place in order for that future to happen, and that we as Christians must be prepared for when those times come.

  14. How can you even begin to discuss Paul the apocalyptist without noting passages like these?

    ‘The rulers of this age… are passing away [“will not last much longer” – Today’s English Version]… Do not go on passing judgment before the time [i.e., “before the time” of final judgment which he predicted was near at hand], but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts… The time has been shortened so that from now on both those who have wives should be as though they had none [i.e., Paul preached that the time was so “short” that married Christian couples “from now on” would be better off to consider celibacy so they could serve the Lord full time]; and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it [i.e., this was not the time for marriage or buying or selling, it was best to serve the Lord full time, like Paul was doing, while awaiting his soon return, or as Paul also said, “it is good for a man not to touch a woman,” and, “I wish all men were as I am” (celibate) 1 Cor 7]; for the form of this world is passing away [“This world, as it is now, will not last much longer” – Today’s English Version]… …These things were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come…

    Paul continues in the same letter:

    Proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes [i.e., Paul did not say, “Proclaim the Lord’s death until the day you die,” but rather, “until he comes,” which means that he considered Christ’s coming to be nearer than the time when the believers he was writing to would all be dead]. We [Paul and the first century believers being addressed] shall not all sleep… At the last trumpet… the dead will be raised… and we shall be changed. Maranatha [=”Come Lord”]’1 Cor 2:6; 4:5; 7:29-31; 10:11; 11:26; 15:51-52; 16:22

    Or consider what Paul wrote to the believers at Thessalonica:

    …How you turned to God from idols…to wait for His Son from heaven [Compare 1 Cor 1:7, “…awaiting eagerly the revelation (revealing) of our Lord Jesus Christ”]… For who is our… crown… Is it not even you [the first century Christians being addressed], in the presence of our Lord Jesus at his coming?… May establish your hearts… before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we [Paul and the first century Christians being addressed] who are alive and remain [notice how Paul included himself as one who will still be alive] until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep…the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air… May your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. [1 Thes 1:9,10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:15-17; 5:23]

    Keep in mind to whom Paul wrote the above letters, and also that Paul claimed that he was repeating a “word” that he had received directly from “the Lord.” What marvelous truth was revealed to Paul in this astonishing revelation? Namely, that “we” [the first century Christians who “remained alive” at the time this letter was written, including Paul, its author] “shall be caught up…in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air!” For Paul there was no doubt that Jesus would arrive before he and the believers he addressed would all be dead. “We,” including himself, “shall not all sleep” [1 Cor 15:51]. Yet all of those to whom Paul once wrote, including Paul, now “sleep” – the “word of the Lord” notwithstanding.

    In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul remained just as certain that Jesus would return shortly:

    …It is just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution…these will pay the penalty…when He comes… [2 Thes 1:6-10]
    That is to say, Jesus would be revealed from heaven “with his mighty angles in flaming fire” soon enough to “relieve” the afflictions of the Thessalonians, and Paul, and other first century Christians!

    Or take these passages from Paul’s letter to the believers at Philippi:

    …He who began a good work in you [the first century Christians being addressed] will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus [i.e., rather than saying, “until the day you die,” which he assumed was not going to happen to all of them, since, as Paul pointed out in 1 Cor, “we shall not all sleep!”]… …In order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ [Compare 1 Tim 6:14, “Keep the commandment…until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”]… …We eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ… …Let your forbearing spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. [Philip 1:6,10; 3:20; 4:5]

    What about Paul’s famous letter to the Christians at Rome?

    …The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is soon [mello] to be revealed to us… The whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now… We…groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body… Knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed! The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand… The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. [Rom 8:18,22-23; 13:11-12; 16:20]

    Paul was a fanaticus extremis.

    • “How can you even begin to discuss Paul the apocalyptist without noting passages like these?”

      Because this was a short, general post without pretending to be exhaustive.

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